Sunday, November 08, 2015

Onora O'Neill on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Expression

I've been meaning to blog for a while about the great Onora O'Neill's fascinating Theos Lecture "Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Expression" which was given last month.

She begins by making the important point that there is "little point in shrinking the list of human rights to what are thought to comprise a minimally adequate set (and, of course, there might be a plurality of such sets). Given that each listed right is indeterminate, reduced lists too will be interpretable in multiple ways, and the real task of working out how rights are to be interpreted and  institutionalised will still need a lot of further thought and work, as well as legislation. In interpreting the abstract rights of the Declarations and Conventions we cannot proceed one-right-at-a-time. We always need to  frame institutions and laws in ways that allow for protecting, respecting and realising the range of rights." (my italics)

She notes that "many of the classical arguments were not about rights— let alone about universal rights—but about duties, and in particular about duties to tolerate others’ speech even if it was false or wrong, and even if others had no right to speak or publish in certain ways. (That, I suggest, is why the duty of toleration seemed so difficult in the early modern period, and also why we now find it hard to follow some of  the older arguments, and why some contemporary writing dismisses toleration as an easy duty, that requires no more than indifference)." (her italics)

Onora makes the rather subtle point that "‘freedom of self-expression’ and ‘freedom of expression’ are what are known as ‘false friends’: arguments that bear on one cannot simply be transferred to the other."

She also offers a very coherent argument that "There is no way of securing freedom of expression if we also maintain that there is a right not to be offended. Speech acts that incite hatred, or that intimidate, or that defraud, or that abuse, can be regulated without putting freedom of expression at the mercy of others. But if there were a right not to be offended, this would put everyone’s freedom of expression at the mercy of others..Any supposed right not to be offended would founder on the fact that offensiveness is subjective, and would put others’ freedom of expression wholly at the mercy of the sensibilities of possible audiences, including audiences who may include some who are hypersensitive, paranoid or self-serving—or worse."

She points out that the "broad definition of belief currently being applied by the courts to freedom of expression and freedom of religion is unclear, and some rulings appear inconsistent with others." For example "It is puzzling to find opposition to fox hunting classified as a ‘religion or belief’, but support for fox hunting not classified as a ‘religion or belief'"

Her concluding discussion demonstrates that: "any adequate interpretation of and legislation for human rights (for a given society at a given time) has to take a clear view about whose action is required to respect and realise those rights, and cannot prescribe requirements that obstruct or undermine those rights. ...we have to ask not only which rights can consistently be held by all, but also which counterpart duties on others (themselves right holders) are compatible with everyone’s rights. It is not enough merely to assert or assume that everyone has each listed right: rights shorn of counterpart duties will be no more than rhetoric and gesture, and the fundamental task of justifying rights is to find an interpretation under which each person can coherently have all of a range of rights, and these rights are not mere rhetoric because they can be matched to and secured by a pattern of duties that would respect and realise those rights."

Yet another tour de force from someone who is surely our greatest and most influential living philosopher. And congratulations to Theos for hosting the event.


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